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Inquiry links Native teen's death to police officers

An inquiry into the death of a Native teen blasted police on Tuesday for a "superficial and totally inadequate" investigation but officials said not enough evidence existed to bring charges against officers suspected of involvement.

In an explosive and lengthy report with graphic photos, Justice David Wright of Saskatchewan excoriated the Saskatoon police for "inexcusable" actions in the case of Neil Stonechild, a 17-year-old Native boy who was found frozen to death on the outskirts of town in 1990. He said police conducted a shoddy investigation that failed to explain why Stonechild died in such an odd location on a cold night.

Wright said police superiors dismissed "important information" about Stonechild's whereabouts on November 25, 1990, the last night he was seen alive. Evidence showed that two police officers were looking for Stonechild, who was the subject of public disturbance complaints, and there is "no question" they took him into custody, the report said.

Stonechild "died of cold exposure" in the early morning hours of November 25, the inquiry noted, and his body was found four days later. But evidence showed that bruises on his body were "likely" caused by police handcuffs, Wright said. A witness, another Native teen who was a friend of Stonechild, had come forward and suggested officers were involved.

Despite this information, police officials ignored questions about Stonechild's death that were raised by his family, the Native community in Saskatchewan and the media. Wright singled out Sgt. Keith Jarvis, the officer in charge of the initial investigation, for not even looking at the autopsy photos showing Stonechild's bruises or following up on leads that could have explained what happened that night.

"As I have already observed, the deficiencies in the investigation go beyond incompetence or neglect," Wright wrote. "They were inexcusable."

Even after the deaths of four other Native men, the police failed to take allegations of police harassment and brutality seriously, the inquiry noted. Only until another Native man came forward and said he was dropped off by police outside of town did another investigation, this time by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, take place. Yet Saskatoon police remained recalcitrant, Wright said.

"The self-protective and defensive attitudes exhibited by the senior levels of the police service continued, notwithstanding the establishment of an RCMP Task Force to investigate the suspicious deaths of a number of Aboriginal persons and the abduction of an Aboriginal man," he wrote in the report. "These same attitudes were manifested by certain members of the Saskatoon Police Service during the Inquiry."

Saskatoon's police chief responded to the report by apologizing to Stella Bignell, Stonechild's mother. "I am publicly apologizing to Mrs. Stella Bignell and her family for 14 years of frustration and denial," Chief Russell Sabo said.

At a press conference to release the report, Frank Quennell, Saskatchewan's justice minister, said it was unacceptable that the government failed to investigate fully Stonechild's death. But he said prosecutors found "insufficient evidence" to lay charges against Larry Hartwig and Brad Senger, the two officers who took the boy into custody the night he went missing.

"They took my son away from me," Bignell said at a news conference. "They didn't investigate even though I asked them to."

Sabo said he suspended Hartwig and Senger pending another review. "Are we held accountable? Yes we are," he promised. A deputy police chief was suspended in March after admitting he misled the media about police involvement in the death.

Wright's inquiry heard from 43 witnesses over 64 days. Hearings were held in Saskatoon, which has a large Native population but which has been beset by strained race relations in recent years. The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, an inter-tribal organization that had standing in the case, received racist and threatening phone calls after setting up a telephone line to take information about alleged police brutality.

The two Saskatoon police officers who admitted abandoning a Native in the freezing cold lost their jobs served eight months in jail for unlawful imprisonment.

Get the Report:
Report of the Commission of Inquiry Into Matters Relating to the Death of Neil Stonechild (October 2004)

Relevant Links:
Stonechild Inquiry -
Starlight Tours, from the CBC -